Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Integrity Still Counts

Posted by John Montgomery on July 30, 2009


I am sure there is some Bible verse somewhere that I could quote – something about giving up to temptation. But, I will pass.

Michael Phelps has been in the news again lately – his first world competition since his amazing performance on the global stage in the Beijing Olympics and since the lifting of his suspension from competition for being photographed with a Bong.

The headlines have taunted Michael’s loss in the 200 freestyle to young German swimmer, Paul Biedermann who Phelps had beaten by 4 seconds in China. “Is this a sign of Phelp’s inevitable decline?” the stories asked. I think not – instead it is a sign of character, and I am grateful in a world of sports where doping and other questionable practices are rampant, that Michael demonstrated an important lesson in integrity.

Over the years, my youngest has had the opportunity to swim against Michael. Matt almost even beat him when they were 10 years old. I’ve had the chance to watch Michael mature in those years and I have always respected him for his kindness, humor and resolve. Matt had the chance to watch Michael as well over the years, watch him grow and grow, not just in height, but in wing span. Adolescence brought Matt all the way to 5’8″. He has a great kick, but every flip turn leaves him half a body length behind. Two years ago, after finishing his college career, he became a coach. a pretty good one I hear.

Of course, the story behind the story of Michael’s loss, not just a race, but a record had to do with the suit that Biedermann (and several others) wore. These new suits are made with polyurethane and provide special buoyancy that enhances speed. These newfangled  suits have torn the sport of swimming apart, with the international governing body FINA promising that they will be banned shortly in the next year. However, at this year’s world championships being held in Rome at the Foro Italico outdoor pool, records are regularly falling. One of the decisions that FINA will have to make is whether these new world records should have an asterick next to the published times.

Swim suits are strange. Most parents of male swimmers remember nervously back to the first time their son tried on a Speedo, a suit that they themselves would have never been caught dead in! Over the years came jammers, knee length suits that nowadays avoid the embarassment of young kids being so exposed. Of course, there are different versions of the full-body suit that have been around for years.

Michael generally wears the Speedo  LZR racer and part of why I speak of the intergrity of his decision has to do with staying with his sponsor company. It is reported that other swimmers chose to wear the new suits, but then covered-up the logo. Speedo has certainly been good to Michael. After his performance in Beijing, Michael got a million dollar bonus. Still, it seems to me, that his decision to stay with Speedo represents not just an unwillingness to compromise simply based his own narrow self-interest, but a kind of affirmation of loyalty that is hard to come by these days.

But, it seems to me that there is more. The NYT article missed the point by reporting that Michael switched suits for the 200 fly. However, he still wore a LZR racer, just one that kept his upper body free. That is not uncommon for the butterfly races. I might add that latest reports note that Michael not only won that particular race but set a new world record.

Michael’s coach, Bob Bowman, concerned about the questionable new records, had threatened that Michael will not compete in international competition until these issues are resolved. Bowman and I have argued on deck more than once, but I think he is absolutely right this time around. Apparently the threat has shaken up more than a few international officials and my guess is that this will be resolved sooner than later.

It is at this point that the real question of integrity emerges. Swimming is a great sport. Now my boys did play little league and my older son Tim ran cross country. But I have always loved swimming. First, because it is co-ed and before adolescence sets in, the girls generally beat the boys – kind of a humbling lesson that I believe has stayed with my sons occasioning a sort of respect for gender differences not necessarily taught in other sports.

Second, because swimming is not a contact sport, i.e. as long as you stay in your own lane, your true competition is yourself. Coaches repeatedly set goals that don’t have to do with winning, but have to do with beating your personal best time. Everybody can be a winner at swimming.

In our county summer league championships, for the last couple of years, the opening heat in the first race has been reserved for several of the kids who compete in spite of  their disabilities. None of these kids could make the qualifying times to swim in the regular heats. but as the race finishes, the cheers are deafening, the crowd is on its feet recognizing that in their own way these kids have accomplished just as much as Michael did in Beijing.

There used to be a Coke commercial – I think it was Coke – after all I am in Atlanta. It said, “be all that you can be.” Frankly, I thnk that John Wesley would have found it an interesting slogan – something to do with sanctification and going on to perfection – perfection not only in your loving relationship to the neighbor, but also in how one loves one’s own self.

I think the new swim suits cross the line – so did Michael. He is reported to have said to Biedermann that he looks forward to a rematch next year in jammers! The temptation here is not to be all that you can be, but be more that you are able to be.

One last story. My older son, Timothy broke the 11-12 year old state record for the 50 back stroke several years ago. It was a record that had stayed around in Georgia for some 15 years. This was Tim’s last meet swimming in that age group. Two days later, he had graduated to the 13-14 year old classification. In the next meet, Tim’s training partner, Peter Marshall who was one month younger than Tim and eventually has held several world records broke Tim’s new record by .01 of a second! Tim never got his name in the record book.

That was disappointing, but what I remember most vividly was the fact that as Peter finished the race and started to climb out of the pool, Tim was there shaking his hand and congratulating him.

Being the best that you can be – now that’s something and Michael has my respect not because of all of his medals, but because of his integrity.

Breaking News: Today NYT is reporting that FINA has ruled that polyurethane suits will be banned as of Janurary 1, 2010. There will also be restrictions on how much of the swimmer’s body can be covered. (July 31, 2009)

Photo: New York Times – Lars Baron/Bongarts, via Getty Images

One Response to “Integrity Still Counts”

  1. James said

    I have always been a fan of cycling and even tried racing myself, integrity and good sportsmanship were always an issue. Greg Lemond is probably my most favorite rider. He was never a favorite for coaches because he refused vitamin injections and doping. He would have won more than three Tour De Frances but being shot in the chest in a hunting accident (which he won two tours after his recovery) and a blood disorder, ended his carrier. For a man that was on his death bed do to cancer, Lance Armstrong sprang back to life night and day better than he was before the cancer. I often wonder about some of these champions and integrity. Because, after Greg’s hunting accident, his cycling ability was degraded but I was happy that he still pulled out a couple of wins in the biggest cycling race of the year.

    So, I do not really care much about Michael’s private mistakes, heck we all make them. If he truly has integrity for the sport then my hats off to him. He is definitely a champion in my eyes.
    Thanks John for posting this, it was helpful.

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